Twenty ways the '90s changed television

From "Twin Peaks" to "The X-Files" to "The Simpsons" (O.J. included), TV broke ground and rules in the last decade of the century.


Joyce Millman
December 22, 1999 9:00PM (UTC)

"Twin Peaks" (ABC) and "The X-Files" (Fox)
On April 8, 1990, a beautiful, blue, plastic-wrapped dead girl named Laura Palmer washed up on the shore of our consciousness, and for prime-time TV, the '90s had begun. Filmmaker David Lynch's dreamlike saga of obsession, depravity and spiritual redemption brought surrealism, Buddhism, sexual perversity, daytime soap operatics, Jungian psychology, kinky humor and a renewed appreciation for cherry pie and a damn fine cup o' joe to network television. "Twin Peaks" was adored by hipsters, academics and regular folks alike -- that is, until they got bored and frustrated by Lynch's unusual (for TV) storytelling rhythms and unwillingness to provide "closure" on demand. "Twin Peaks" was a brief, flickering passion, an electrifying, mind-blowing cultural moment crushed by the Nielsen-dependent conventions of American TV.

But without Lynch's beautiful-ugly visions and his marriage of the disturbing and the deadpan, "The X-Files" might not exist. Chris Carter's blend of sci-fi chills, conspiracy theories, spiritual hunger and the sexiest, deepest, most tender platonic relationship TV has ever seen tapped into some of the same fascinations as "Twin Peaks": the nature of faith, occult and paranormal phenomena, the grotesque. Considering "the truth" about everything from alien abductions to urban legends to the origin of life on Earth from all the angles, "The X-Files" was just plausible and thoughtful enough to scare the pants off skeptics. Articulating the paranoid distrust of government, science and the media that bubbled up at the turn of the millennium, "The X-Files" was the show of the '90s.

Advertisement:

David Letterman (NBC and CBS) and "The Larry Sanders Show" (HBO)
When David Letterman moved from NBC to CBS in 1993, he underwent a sartorial makeover befitting a network's highest-paid star, working the enormous Ed Sullivan Theater stage in snazzy suits, tassled loafers and trendy little specs. He was still the same Dave, though -- cranky, self-mocking, unpredictable, a man of contradictions. Throughout the '90s, Letterman remained the most intriguing host on late-night TV. His unhappiness with his lot in life is sometimes almost palpable, as if the burden of being the greatest talk-show host since Johnny Carson has brought him untold misery. He has done some of his nastiest, funniest person-on-the-street work since coming to CBS, yet he has also become courtlier, more generous, toward guests and audience. His relationship with the camera, his genius for reinvention, his daredevil sense of risk -- Letterman keeps pushing TV's mainstream to the left, in the spirit of Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kaufman. He may not like it, but he seems to finally accept it: He is David Letterman, talk show host.

With the boundary-stretching sitcom "The Larry Sanders Show," about a fictional late-night talk show host, Garry Shandling perfected the screwing-with-reality premise he started on his previous cable series, Showtime's "It's Garry Shandling's Show." "Larry Sanders" was an astringently funny backstage look at brutal, venal show biz culture, as well as a comment on the intrusion of TV into every aspect of society. Life was a talk show for the emotionally frozen Larry, who couldn't relate to other humans without a camera running; his producer and father figure, Artie (Rip Torn, in one of the most brilliant performances of the decade) called him "half-man, half-desk." "Larry Sanders" was a deft put-on. But then, given how Letterman retreats into himself the minute a commercial break is signaled, maybe it wasn't.

"My So-Called Life" (ABC) and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (WB)
In "My So-Called Life," producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick applied the intimate, confessional style of their seminal '80s work, "thirtysomething," to '90s suburban family life. The parents were 40 and unsatisfied, the teenagers were 15 and restless. The emotional fireworks were mesmerizing. Not only was "MSCL" the truest and most resonant portrait of a modern girl's coming of age TV had ever offered, it spawned a whole new genre: the Serious Teen Drama. From the ashes of the prematurely canceled "MSCL," the WB was born.

And speaking of the WB, its most original and enduring series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," went to the head of the class with its dazzling, genre-busting tale of a girl with the power to save the world from evil. "Buffy" recast high school angst in horror movie terms, making fresh hell out of cliques, first love and disapproving adults. But "Buffy" was much more, too. Witheringly funny, swoonily romantic and populated by some of the most wonderfully realized characters on TV, Joss Whedon's cult phenom left much of what passed for Emmy-worthy drama in the dust. An indelible image of the '90s: Sarah Michelle Gellar -- Buffy -- with her blond hair glistening and her big blue eyes steely, aiming a crossbow at a vampire's heart with utter composure and purpose. This was girl power.

"Seinfeld" (NBC) and "Northern Exposure" (CBS)
No messages, no Very Special Episodes, no hugs: "Seinfeld" demolished soggy sitcom constraints with manic glee. Oddly, its liberating urban-neurotic nastiness made it the most beloved, and most quoted ("No soup for you!" "Mulva!" "Master of my domain!"), sitcom of the decade. The Rube Goldberg-structured plots, in which Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer invariably were strangled in their own web of lies, achieved an astonishingly consistent level of hilarity. And the four characters were case studies in arrested development. Lazy, whiny and self-centered, they were wish-fulfillment fantasies -- oh, to be irresponsible! -- for viewers in a go-go, work-centered age.

"Northern Exposure" won the 1992 Emmy for best drama series, but, in his acceptance speech, show co-creator John Falsey laughed, "We're really a comedy!" And, in its own way, "Northern Exposure" was as groundbreaking a comedy as "Seinfeld." An hour-long flight of fancy with interludes of bittersweet drama, this series about a New York Jewish doctor who was sent against his will to serve a residency in a remote Alaskan town was a delightful surprise when it popped up unheralded on CBS's summer replacement schedule in July 1990. "Northern Exposure" practically defined "quirky," with its lox-out-of-water premise (it was as overtly Jewish as "Seinfeld") and its band of unpredictable, multicultural small-town characters, whose rich inner lives were explored with inventive, sophisticated storytelling. Hour-long comedy-dramas as diverse as "Ally McBeal," "The Sopranos" (whose creator, David Chase, was a writer for "Northern Exposure") and "Now and Again" owe a debt to "Northern Exposure" for its pioneering spirit: It took TV comedy out of the 30-minute box and into the great unknown.

Advertisement:

"The Simpsons" (Fox) and "Beavis and Butt-head" (MTV)
If we were really concerned that future civilizations understand what America was all about at the tail end of the 20th century, we would bottle up every episode of "The Simpsons," along with a TV and a VCR, inside a time capsule and let the chips fall where they may. Premiering as a weekly series on Jan. 14, 1990, Matt Groening's brilliant, subversive, savagely funny chronicle of life as we know it launched the prime-time cartoon revolution. It was, and remains, the standard-bearer for TV satire. Of course, watching "The Simpsons" centuries from now, those future civilizations may well assume that humans used to be banana yellow, with Ping Pong balls for eyes and big blue hair. Let 'em: That's a prank worthy of Bart.

Tripping spacily through the door "The Simpsons" opened, Mike Judge's "Beavis and Butt-head" threw raunch and rudeness into the mix and sparked dozens of worried essays about the "dumbing down" of American culture. Little did the pundits know that Judge's endearingly silly -- and, in their own way, culturally astute -- couch potatoes would soon pave the way for the even more outrageous, rude, silly, astute and potty-mouthed "South Park." Heh-heh, heh-heh. She said "potty." Heh-heh, heh-heh, heh-heh.

Advertisement:

"Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC) and "The Sopranos" (HBO)
"Homicide" was the cop show of the decade, a tough, jazzed, midnight ride into the unquiet soul of the Baltimore "murder police." Its pseudo-realism, chaotic squad room scenes and use of pop music to underscore mood, as well as its unforgettable roster of heroes and anti-heroes, borrowed from previous NBC trailblazers "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice." But "Homicide" (created by Paul Attanasio and produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson) took it all a step further, faster, deeper and blacker (this show had the best-written, most prominent African-American characters of the decade). At its finest, "Homicide" was the most uncompromising police drama on the air. Never a Nielsen hit, "Homicide" spent all of its six-year run in danger of cancellation. But that's how it was for most challenging network dramas during the high-stakes '90s.

"The Sopranos" ended up on HBO because David Chase, the show's creator, couldn't find a taker for his dark mafia comedy-drama among the broadcast networks. Which was a good thing for us. Even though ABC's "NYPD Blue" had broken the nudity and language barrier earlier in the decade, it's doubtful "The Sopranos" would have made it to network prime time with its topless bar dancers and its colorful vernacular -- basically, the F-word used as a verb, noun, adjective or some combination of the three in every other sentence -- intact. HBO has provided a nurturing home for this magnificent series, which became a talker right out of the gate, inspiring hordes of fans to subscribe to HBO or buy satellite-dish packages. America has embraced this dysfunctional New Jersey Mafia clan the way it took to the Corleones 20 years ago, and it isn't hard to see why. The Sopranos may be working the wrong side of the law, but their suburban upper-middle-class assimilation dreams ring true -- they're ethnic and new money, but they want to belong. Smart, ballsy, lushly cinematic and unlike anything else on TV, "The Sopranos" represents the future of TV programming. The broadcast networks have got to be worried.

"Biography" (A&E) and "Dateline NBC" (NBC)
"Biography" hit on the perfect way to fill air time cheaply in an ever-expanding cable universe: Slap together some archival footage of the famous and notorious, add a few interviews with "experts" and "friends," lay on some grabbily pretentious narration along the lines of "Elvis was riding high. But storm clouds, in the form of divorce, drug addiction and peanut butter and banana sandwiches, were gathering on the horizon," and, presto, you've got yourself a franchise. "Biography" became A&E's gold mine, and the cable network packaged it with book tie-ins, videos, a magazine and specialized editions for global audiences. "Biography" was one of the programming success stories of the decade, a fact that becomes even more obvious when you consider its growing list of clones: VH1's "Legends" and "Behind the Music"; E!'s "True Hollywood Story"; Lifetime's "Intimate Portraits"; MSNBC's "Time and Again" and "Headliners and Legends." Yes, by the end of 1999, "Biography" imitators were riding high. But storm clouds, in the form of biography-saturated viewers, were gathering on the horizon ...

Advertisement:

A younger, hipper and more sensationalistic version of "60 Minutes," "Dateline NBC" was the network version of "Biography": relatively cheap reality programming to plug into the scheduling holes that arose as NBC killed off more and more hour-long dramas. Expanding to two, three and four broadcasts a week, "Dateline" was everywhere in the latter half of the decade; so were its competitors, as "Dateline" inspired "20/20," "48 Hours" and even "60 Minutes" to go multi-night. The proliferation of newsmagazines didn't mean more actual news, however, just an endless parade of bizarre murders, obscure diseases, automobile crash tests, child-rearing scare stories, natural disasters and celebrity fluff.

Mergers and acquisitions
And Ted Turner stood on the mountaintop and saw that the '90s economy was robust, and it was good. And he saw that the FCC and the Justice Department were kind, and it was good. And so Turner laid down with Gerald Levin of Time Warner, and they begat a new media empire, and it was good. And, lo, the Mouse laid down with ABC, and it was good (except for Disney's stock, which was so-so), and then the Prince of Microsoft wanted a pieceth of the TV action, and so he laid down with NBC, and they begat MSNBC, and it was good. And Sumner Redstone, ruler of the kingdom of Viacom (MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, Blockbuster Video), laid down with Mel Karmazin, ruler of the kingdom of CBS, and it was very good for shareholders. And whatever they did not take, Rupert Murdoch, the absolute monarch of the land of News Corp., took, and so Twentieth Century Fox begat Fox TV and Fox TV begat Fox News Channel and Fox News Channel begat Fox Sports Network and Fox Sports Network begat Fox Family and Fox Family begat FX, and the names of all the Foxes were inscribed in News Corp.'s Guide of TV, and it was good.

Or was it?

Advertisement:

Geraldo and O.J.
Together, the self-promoting tabloid TV pioneer and the NFL Hall of Famer and double-murder defendant ushered in a new era of TV "news." Geraldo Rivera's impassioned, obsessive coverage of the O.J. Simpson saga on his nightly CNBC debate show pitted pro- and con-Simpson legal analysts against each other in blood-pressure-raising shouting matches. It provided the model for TV's speculation-riddled handling of all the decade's tragedies and scandals to come, from the crash of TWA Flight 800 (which serendipitously occurred during MSNBC's very first week on the air in 1996) to Columbine, to the deaths of Princess Diana and JFK Jr., to Monicagate.

Oprah and Xena
And Roseanne and Martha and Ellen ... Women flexed muscle and kicked butt in the TV industry throughout the decade, from the in-your-face feminism and sitcom-form-busting anarchy of "Roseanne" to the talk show/book club/TV movie empire of Oprah Winfrey, to Martha Stewart Inc., founded on napkin rings made of twigs and berries, to the powerful female TV execs -- including former Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne, former ABC entertainment president Jamie Tarses, and current WB entertainment president Susanne Daniels -- who went where no women had gone before.

During the '90s, women also led the crusade for gay representation in prime time. ABC's "Roseanne" featured a lesbian character and a gay married couple. Ellen DeGeneres finally came out (like we didnt know) in real life and on her ABC sitcom "Ellen," becoming the first openly gay lead character in a TV series. Her coming out paved the way for the flaming, proudly queer Will and Jack of NBC's "Will & Grace" (who seem more comfortable in their skin than Ellen ever did on her show). And while all of this was happening, Xena the Warrior Princess and her Amazon sidekick, Gabrielle, were having a gay old time as the coolest, toughest, closest female action heroines in TV history. Ay-ay-ay-aiee!

Honorable mention: Some shows we can't overlook
"Absolutely Fabulous" (Comedy Central), "The Ben Stiller Show" (Fox), "Cop Rock" (ABC), "Elvis" (ABC), "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS), "EZ Streets" (CBS), "Friends" (NBC), "Get a Life" (Fox), "In Living Color" (Fox), "The Kids in the Hall" (HBO), "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" (NBC),"The Middle Ages" (CBS), "Nowhere Man" (UPN), "NYPD Blue" (ABC), "Prime Suspect" (PBS), "Profit"(Fox).

Advertisement:

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abc Cbs Conan O'brien Hbo Martha Stewart Nbc Oprah Winfrey Seinfeld The Simpsons

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •